Beyond Ignorance: Teaching White Privilege

I work for a college-access program designed for first-generation, low-income students of color. In a class of seventeen freshmen, one student is white. She’s incredibly willing to learn about race and diversity and, even as a high school freshman, already knows terms like privilege. She wants to be educated and do anti-racist work.

I work with this student twice a week through one-on-one sessions. We’re reading Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay (a collection of essays I recommend to anyone and everyone for Gay’s humor, vulnerability and realness when discussing modern day feminism). Multiple times, this student has expressed the opinion, “I’m really ignorant” when speaking about race, especially in regard to her uncomfortability when confronted with the notion that there’s a whole world of racial injustice she hasn’t seen and will never experience directly.

Though I’ve written before about how whiteness and Jewishness feel like two conflicting parts of my identity, when working with this student (and really all of my students) I am a white instructor. Especially when working with this particular student, I have been in her situation and still am in the situation of trying each day to unlearn racism. I too have stumbled over or whispered words like “black” or “African-American”, as if these descriptors have a negative connotation and I’m uttering an insult. This is racist of me and it’s a process to unlearn these patterns of speech and behavior.

But I don’t want this student to leave our sessions believing that she’s ignorant and that’s all she can do is admit to her ignorance because she’s white. I’m trying to move the conversation to a place where she has action steps and can recognize when that ignorance might actually be guilt or another uncomfortable emotion we haven’t yet named.

I sent her an article from Everyday Feminism: “‘I didn’t Know That was Racist’- Are You Using ‘White Ignorance’ to Dodge Responsibility?” and the accompanying video. I’m thinking of continuing the conversation by speaking about white privilege as a way of framing why she’s ignorant. I’m searching for advice and suggestions to have a more specific plan.

Does anyone have any resources or suggestions on how to have a conversation with this student that moves beyond white ignorance?

Advice for White Allies

I don’t know what to say about the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. I don’t know what to say that will not be repeating platitudes that their deaths must be mourned, that these are not isolated incidents. Castille was the 561st death at the hands of police this year, according to The Guardian’s “The Counted” project.

And because I am not part of the black community, there is only so much I can say as an ally. It’s important to be an ally to the black community, even if there are no black people in the room. Allyship is not a part-time position. You are an ally 100% of the time, or you are not an ally at all.

Advice for White allies:

  1. Saying someone is black or African American is not an insult. Growing up in CT, my hometown would speak about black people by speeding up our speech and avoiding even saying the word black. Black was coded to mean less-than. But we can change our speech patterns and remove our ingrained racism when we pay enough attention. When speaking about Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, or any of the black people murdered by police, race cannot be removed from the discussion.
  2. Recognize that you don’t understand what your black friends/co-workers etc are going through. This doesn’t mean you don’t care, but do not compare your own experience, even if you hold other marginalized identities. You still hold white privilege.
  3. Attend protests and vigils, but understand this is not your place to speak. Listen instead. Be silent and listen.
  4. Know you won’t always say the right thing. Be willing to apologize.

Experiencing White Privilege

As a Jewish person, I do not always feel White. I’ve talked about this before because I see White culture as Christian culture. And yet, I look White, I grew up thinking I was White, and I have White privilege.

I went to the bank a few nights ago to deposit a check and one of the tellers told me the bank was closed. “Please go to the drive up.”

“I just need to endorse a check.” I told her. “Can I come in for a moment to use a pen?”

She told me no, that it was against policy for her to let me in. For a moment, I was upset. I felt I deserved to be able to use a pen at least. Then I realized, I was operating from a position of White privilege. The teller didn’t owe me entry. The teller didn’t owe me anything.

I was about to walk away when the manager got involved. The manager (a White male) told the teller (a Black female) to let me in. “It’s okay,” I told him. “I can use the drive up. It’s not a problem.”

He insisted I come inside and as I was endorsing the check, he quietly chastised the teller. I took the check and headed out so I could use the drive up window, but the manager continued to insist I remain in the branch and speak to a different teller behind the desk to deposit my check.

White privilege was happening to me and around me and I didn’t know what to do to stop it.

I would never feel comfortable saying I’m a person of color because I’m not! I walk through the world as a White person, where people like the White bank manager open doors for me (both literal and figurative) because they view me as one of them. Even though I am female, I am, at least a White female and therefore given certain rights as if they are my due.

Yet, I told the high school students I work with that I am Jewish, female and White and saying I’m White somehow still doesn’t feel right. Maybe, I am speaking from a desire to not be White and to not take responsibility for racism and the oppression I am a part of.

Paul Kivel, writes of a similar issue in his essay I’M NOT WHITE, I’M JEWISH. BUT I’M WHITE: Standing as Jews in the Fight for Racial Justice” for Dayton University. Kivel says that at an Academic Conference on Whiteness (can we talk about privilege to hold such a conference?) none of the White people said they were White. From gender to sexual orientation to class, everyone had a reason to say they were not White.

I do not want to be that person. I am open to thoughts and insights into what it means to claim Whiteness, not just White privilege.

 

Privilege: The World Doesn’t Owe You

I’m Jewish but I’m perceived as white. I don’t usually identify with white culture because white culture in America to me means white Christian culture (a divide exacerbated with the holiday season). Yet, I have white privilege and I’ve been reminded of it more and more in recent weeks.

I volunteer at an organization fighting poverty and I had a conversation with a black man who mentioned that I’m white. His comment struck me because that’s now I would identify myself, but it was his perception (and I’m sure many people’s perception) of who I am and where I’m from.

And I began to think that this might be a normal rock of the boat for someone with white privilege: when you’re white no one needs to mention your race because you are the norm.

I’m coming to realize that no matter how I work through my Jewish identity, I have white privilege. I have white privilege because every day I need to remind myself that the world doesn’t owe me anything for the accidental color of my skin. This is an even more difficult pill to swallow than being reminded that I appear white, because I need to police myself and my own thoughts.

The first step to eliminating white privilege and working toward an anti-racist world is seeing your own white privilege. The second step is knowing what your white privilege means.

Coloring While White

I was at an event at my college, hosted by the South Asian students association, the Black Student Association, and the Muslim Student Association and they had whole tables of pictures to color, most of which were of women of color. There was a brilliant picture of Princess Jasmine, from Disney’s Aladdin, waving a flag that read:

nobody’s free until everyone is free!

And when I went to color her in, I had to stop and think and remember to reach for a brown crayon to color her skin. I had never thought of this micro aggression against people of color before, but it’s so obvious now that I think about it. As a person perceived as white and benefiting daily from white privilege, regardless of how I choose to identify, even things like crayons cater to me. I can reach into a Crayola crayon box and pull out a “flesh” colored crayon, which tells me, even as a child, that this is the natural color of a person’s skin.

flesh

I feel oblivious and ashamed that I never noticed that until last week. But until we notice and address the micro-aggressions against people of color, we’ll never move beyond them to address the blatant issues of racism. Because, nobody’s free until everyone is free and nobody’s free while we ignore white privilege.

In between White and Person of Color

I have white privilege but I don’t identify as white. Because White, to me, means White Christian culture. And as a Jew I’m excluded. It can be as subtle as having to go to school on major Jewish holidays, or as frustrating as having to explain my religion to people as “the token Jew.”

In short, I’ve stopped identifying as white. But the problem is that I have white privilege. My family is everything Eastern European and by my skin color I am white. I don’t feel comfortable identifying as a person of color and I don’t seek to equate being Jewish as being a person of color because I know I don’t experience the same oppression.

Is there an in between?

I can check ‘other’ for my race on government surveys, and (if given the option) write Jewish, but I’ve spoken with people who say calling Judaism a race is part of what caused the Holocaust. I don’t believe that, but it’s difficult to get the thought out of my mind.

Does anyone know if there’s a way to identify that encompasses my Jewish identity and recognizes my white privilege? I would really appreciate the advice.

I’ve been meaning to write on the Trayvon Martin case since the final verdict of the Zimmerman trial was announced. I haven’t yet written though because I didn’t know what to say that hadn’t already been said. Even now I don’t think I can speak about the trial itself, but I can speak about my own experience.

Although I was born and raised in Connecticut, a state which claims to be very democratic, liberal and open minded, my home town was full of racism. We were-and still are if I were to go back-a place of hypocrisy. Most of my home town voted for Obama and therefore they feel they are free of racial bias. It doesn’t matter that out of 5,000 students in my high school barely ten percent (maybe) were people of color. No one noticed or thought to question that the upper level AP and honors level classes were only filled with white students. This was the natural order of things, we told ourselves. Of course, we never bothered to analyze our privilege at all.

White privilege was not a concept because it was a lifestyle. It was everything I grew up surrounded by. My brother filled my head with football statistics of how white players are discriminated against for being white, how more black men are in jail than in college and commenting on the lower intelligence of black men as evidenced by some test to get into the NFL. I never bothered to check his facts and I half heartedly debated him because I knew there was something wrong with his logic, but could never put my finger on it. Or I was too afraid to call him out as being racist when I was just as guilty. We never thought to question why the world appeared to us through such a white lens.

My mother never spoke of race. It was somehow known to me that I shouldn’t have black friends, watch black tv shows like the Proud Family for instance, or listen to music by black artists. It was never outright stated, but if I didn’t get it from my mom then I got as if through osmosis by living in a majority white and insulated town.

Is it so difficult to believe then that even though I attend an open minded liberal arts college where a primary focus is diversity and tolerance, that I packed my bigoted views in my suitcase along with my clothes?

When Trayvon was first shot, I had the opportunity to attend a student held event by the Black Student Association on our campus discussing Trayvon’s murder and it’s racial implications. I was on the staff of the newspaper and was given the option to cover this campus event and I declined. I didn’t even go to the event. My excuses were many: I didn’t know enough about the issue, it was an event for black students I wouldn’t be accepted, it was an event for black students why should I care?

At the top of my list though was the most brutally honest and terrible reason: I didn’t care. All I knew was that a black teenager had been shot. Everything I grew up knowing screamed at me that this was a common occurrence because black people get shot every day living their hoodlum gang lifestyles. Trayvon’s death was therefore not only natural, but expected. It would be somehow immoral of me to attend an event when I already knew what side I stood on: the white side.

A year and a half later though and I’m able to see that there isn’t a white side and a black side. There is a racist and bigoted side and there is the side of equality. Perhaps this simplifies things too much, but from where I stand right now you are either pro-human rights or against them. I do not see how there can be a middle ground. If I am going to have the courage to stand up and say that women should be equal in all ways to men, then I better have the courage to look at my own privilege as a white woman.

Oppression is oppression is oppression. I know that I will never need to deal with racism in the same way people of color do and I do not claim that my experience fighting for feminism can ever give me the insight to speak on racial oppression as someone who experiences it first hand. But I do see my privilege and I know that it is wrong for me to be treated better by the color of my skin. I know that things will only change if we rid our minds of white vs colored and focus on opening up our minds to look at ourselves and what we can accomplish.

I know that I can’t do anything for Trayvon. I know that I can’t say anything here which will make up for his death or for the white privilege America prescribes to which allows his murderer to walk free. But I also know that I can look back on my past and see my mistakes and know how to change them so I can fight on the side of human rights. I know where I stand now.